I have been following Dancing with the Stars this season, despite my better judgement, mostly because I thought they were doing something interesting by including two “out” members from the GLBT community: Chaz Bono, a transman, and Carson Kressley, a gay man. Additionally, featured this season was an injured war veteran, J.R. Martinez, as well as numerous other “B-list” celebrities like Nancy Grace, Ricki Lake, and Hope Solo.
Before the season even aired publicly, there was much debate and protest put up by the group “One Million Moms” who did not want Chaz on a “family” show. After hearing about the protest by these moms, I decided to watch and see how ABC decided to present Chaz. Despite the traditional pairing of a man with a women for this dancing show (I had heard some requests that Carson dance with a male partner), Chaz was partnered with a feminine, female professional dancer, respecting his current gender identity and traditional presentation as a masculine, straight man. During the first show, all of the contestants were introduced and Chaz was portrayed as a transgender person who grew up as a girl, the “daughter” of Cher and Sonny Bono. A picture of his early childhood in which he is wearing pigtails and a dress was even shown on screen, making this introduction a fairly standard transgender intro sound bite in my opinion. However, after this introduction, his trans-ness was not discussed again.
In fact, his weight became the central issue for Chaz, his partner and the judges on this show. Chaz was consistently critiqued for his dancing – much like the rest of the contestants. However, he was also unnecessarily ridiculed by one of the judges in particular for being overweight. Chaz was referred to as an “ewok” and a “penguin” on different occasions, both of which are cuddly and cute, but round and “pudgy” ANIMALS. Actually, an ewok is not even an animal, it is an imaginary, invented creature from the Star Wars franchise. Despite the unnecessary nature of critiquing someone for their weight on a show about dancing and the fact that Chaz had admitted he was competing in the hopes of increasing his fitness, I believe there were deeper meanings implied by these comparisons and critiques.
I feel that the judge, a flamboyant (gay?) man, could not recognize Chaz as a MAN. Instead, choosing to refer to him through comparisons to animals. It would be inappropriate for someone on this show to outwardly criticize Chaz for being transgender, but criticizing someone for their weight is still seen as acceptable in American culture. Thus, this man chose to repeatedly and pointedly mark Chaz’s body as unacceptable at every chance and in the most acceptable way that he could. While I have a problem with this judge’s inappropriate speech, I take greater issue with the manner in which Chaz exited the show and handled these critiques.
He said after he was voted off of the show that he wanted to “show America a different kind of man” and referred to how “if he had seen someone like him on TV when he was a kid that it would have been much easier for him growing up.” The sentiment expressed was indeed moving, however, he never once used any adjectives to describe just what kind of man he is! Even more, after the show, when he made the rounds on the talk shows after his exit, he focused on denouncing the judge for his harassment based upon his weight, neglecting to highlight himself as an “out” transperson. It seems that his identity as an overweight man has come to eclipse his identity as a transman.
So, after his statement about showing America a different kind of man, I was left to ask myself what kind of difference he had in fact shown us? He certainly was not visibly queer, though Carson, the gay contestant was (he joked about wearing a woman’s costume on numerous occasions). Chaz did not portray anything outside of the hegemonic presentation of manliness in America, except for his weight. If someone were to watch this show and miss the first episode they would have no idea that the difference Chaz felt he was portraying was anything other than that of a man with a weight that was currently unpopular. I see great value in showing different bodies on primetime TV, and I acknowledge that body image and weight are real issues in America today, I wanted to ask, if Chaz is actually a “different kind of man”?
While Chaz does not have to exhibit his trans-ness and transgender identity at all times, if you are going to call yourself a spokesperson for the transgender community and publicize your transition through books, documentaries and TV appearances, creating celebrity out of your transgender identity, I would expect you to articulate this identity at every turn. As we know from social science research, identities are not fixed and are very fluid, so perhaps during this show, Chaz’s sense of himself as an overweight man was more salient to him than his status as a transgender man. In which case, I applaud his defense of himself as an overweight man, but am left hoping for a continued and stronger transgender presence in the mainstream media.